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Women in the AI field are making research breakthroughs, spearheading vital ethical discussions, and inspiring the next generation of AI professionals. We created the VentureBeat Women in AI Awards to emphasize the importance of their voices, work, and experience and to shine a light on some of these leaders. In this series, publishing Fridays, we’re diving deeper into conversations with this year’s winners, whom we honored recently at Transform 2021. Check out last week’s interview with a winner of our AI rising star award.

No one got more nominations for a VentureBeat AI award this year than Katia Walsh, a reflection of her career-long effort to mentor women in AI and data science across the globe.

For example, Mark Minevich, chair of AI Policy at International Research Center of AI under UNESCO, said, “Katia is an impressive, values-driven leader [who has] been a diversity champion and mentor of women, LGBTQ, and youth at Levi Strauss & Co, Vodafone, Prudential, Fidelity, Forrester, and in academia over many years.” And Inna Saboshchuk, a current colleague of Walsh’s at Levi Strauss & Co, said, “a single conversation with her will show you how much she cares for the people around her, especially young professionals within AI.”

In particular, these nominators and many others highlighted Walsh’s efforts to upskill team members. Most recently, she launched a machine learning bootcamp that allowed people with no prior experience to not only learn the skills, but apply them every day in their current roles.

VentureBeat is thrilled to present Walsh with this much-deserved AI mentorship award. We recently caught up with her to learn more about the early success of her latest bootcamp, the power of everyday mentorship, and the role it can play in humanizing AI.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VentureBeat: You received a ton of nominations for this award, so clearly you’re making a real impact. How would you describe your approach to AI mentorship?

Katia Walsh: My approach is not specific to AI mentorship, but rather overall leadership. I consider myself to be a servant leader, and I see my job as serving the people on my teams, my partners’ teams, and at the companies that I have the privilege to work for. My job is to remove barriers to help them grow, learn, engage, and mobilize others to succeed. So that extends to AI, but it’s not limited to that alone.

VentureBeat: Can you tell us about some of the specific initiatives you’ve launched? I know at Levi Strauss & Co, for example, you recently created a machine learning bootcamp to train more than 100 employees who had no prior machine learning experience, most of them women. That’s amazing. 

Walsh: Absolutely. So we are still in the process. We just started our first cohort between April and May, where we took people with absolutely no experience in coding or statistics from all areas of the company — including warehouses, distribution centers, and retail stores — and sought to make sure we gave people across geographies and across the company the opportunity to learn machine learning and practice that in their day job, regardless of what that day job was.

So we trained the first cohort with 43 people, 63% of whom were women in 14 different locations around the world. And that’s very important because diversity comes in so many different ways, including cultural and geographic diversity. And so that was very successful; every single one of those employees completed the bootcamp. And now we’re about to start our second cohort with 60 people, which will start in September and complete in November.

VentureBeat: I’m glad you mentioned those different aspects of diversity, because the industry is full of conversations around diversity, inclusion efforts, and ethical AI — some of them more genuine than others. So how does AI mentorship ladder up to all that?

Walsh: I see it as just yet another platform to make an impact. AI is such an exciting field, but it can also be seen as intimidating. Some people don’t know if it’s technology or business, but the answer is both. In fact, AI is actually part of our personal lives as well. One of my goals is to humanize the field of AI so that everyone understands the benefits and feels the freedom and the power to contribute to it. And by feeling that, they will in turn help make it even more diverse. At the end of the day — at this point, at least — AI is the product of human beings, with all of human beings’ mindsets, capabilities, and limitations. And so, it’s also imperative to ensure that when we create algorithms, use data, and deliver digital products, we do our very best to really reflect the world we live in.

VentureBeat: We talked about initiatives, but of course mentorship is also about those everyday mentorship-like interactions, such as with one’s manager or an industry connection. How important are these not just for personal development, but also running a business and being part of a team? 

Walsh: That’s actually probably the most important stage. Our daily lives revolve around what might be considered the mundane — meetings, tasks, assignments, deadlines — and that’s actually where we can make the most impact. Mentorship is really not about doing something special and extra, but rather making sure that as part of our daily lives and daily responsibilities and jobs, we ensure we think about if we’re being equitable, fair, and doing everything we can to bring diversity. But it can’t be a box to check; it has to become a part of how we think and act every hour in every single day.

VentureBeat: Are there any misconceptions about mentorship you think are important to clear up, or often overlooked aspects of mentorship you think everyone should know about?

Walsh: One thing that comes to mind is this idea that women can only be mentored by other women. That’s actually not the case. And in my own experience, I’ve had the great privilege of working with men who have themselves taken the chance on me, given me opportunities, and given me responsibilities even before I felt ready. And I really appreciate that. So everyone can be a mentor to women and all genders — including fluid genders — regardless of their own gender, job, or role.

VentureBeat: And do you have any advice for everyone, but especially business leaders, about how they can be better mentors? Or what about advice for people looking to be mentored about how to make the most out of those relationships and everyday interactions?

Walsh: I’ll address the mentee question first. I’ve really been impressed with people who, even at a very young age, have had the courage, incentive, and initiative to reach out and say, “I want to learn from you. Can you spend a few minutes with me?” I always take the call. So I really encourage people to feel that strength and to take that initiative to reach out to people they think they can learn from. And I encourage those who are mentors to also take that call and to proactively encourage others to stay connected with them. One of the things I did was actually give my cell phone number to everyone in my company. It’s not commonly done, but I’ve put it in our own town hall chat because I want people to feel that connection. I don’t want anyone to feel intimidated by a title or where someone sits in a company. AI, data, and digital are truly transversal. They’re horizontal and cut across everything in a company. So it’s part of what I do in my function, but it’s also part of really wanting to contribute to diversity and mentorship.

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